I am going to tell you a very personal story that has changed my perspective towards the many challenges that become default as you move forward as an MIT Ph.D. student.
It was a Tuesday evening, and I was in the Z-center, the athletic facility at MIT. I was standing on the second floor, right next to the water fountain, stretching while thinking about the presentation I needed to make in my upcoming research group meeting. I was browsing through my Spotify list to find a beautiful tune, when a WhatsApp message came in from my sister.
+ Hey M. How are you doing?
(wait, it is 4 am in my home country of Turkey, please not bad news...)
- Hey Z. I am in the gym, working out. What’s up?
+ I don’t know how to tell you this… Our grandfather passed away. Now we are on our way to their home.
Everything blurred. I went out, barely breathing, unsure what to do, trying to comprehend the situation. On the stairs by the Kresge building, I cried. I cried a lot. Before that, I had never lost a close relative or someone I love. The feeling itself is indescribable. I guess our wiring does not allow us to understand or accept the situation entirely. Or maybe it is just me. I don’t know.
Until I was 16, I had spent all of my summer holidays at my grandparent’s house by the Aegean Sea coast, in a town called Özdere. I helped my grandfather water the trees, flowers, and vegetables. We had discussions about corrupt Turkish politics, and he shared memories from his younger times.
Left: Sea coast view from Özdere, İzmir, Turkey. Right: Izmir's location (via Google Maps)
As his oldest grandson, I was not able to attend his funeral, because I did not have a travel signature on my I-20. An I-20 is the Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Students, and without a travel signature you cannot return to the U.S. after travel abroad.
I had so many questions I wanted to ask him. Now, he is gone. Sounds cliché, right? I know, but it is really the case. I was always postponing the things that I wanted to discuss with him to my next visit. Always to the next.
So my friend, if you are an international (prospective) student, maybe you have experienced something similar, or maybe haven’t. But if you experience something similar you may start to question all the choices you made that brought you to MIT. I remember saying to myself, “What am I doing here when my loved ones need me the most?” I remember feeling selfish for not being there, living my life here, in a bubble of grad-school-related problems. I was trying to make them proud, right?
It has been exactly a year now. Initially, I was sad and confused. Now, I feel thankful to had a chance to get to know him. I guess this is just how life is, but the transition was not smooth. Luckily, here at MIT, I was and still am surrounded by sincerely great people.
So, my friend, I know you are busy, I know you are stressed, I know there is a bug in your code. Just make sure that you make enough time to talk to your loved ones as much as you like to. And finally, always be ready for emergencies and instant travel.